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Dawn of the Twitter Effect

Yesterday a Twitter post (a tweet) by Mashable’s Pete Cashmore became so popular that traffic from Twitter crashed a blog. This sounds very similar to a common social media phenomenon originally known as the Slashdot effect (and later also the Digg effect), where a post on a popular social media site pushes more traffic than the target site can handle.
An interesting thing here is the mechanics of Twitter, which is fundamentally different from Digg and Slashdot. It’s not a social news site, with a front page that all visitors go to. We won’t go into the details of how Twitter works, that’s better covered elsewhere, but it’s worth noting that it’s a very different beast. It will be interesting times if Twitter is about to join the ranks of Slashdot and Digg as a potential “site crasher”.
For lack of a better word we will call the phenomenon of sites crashing as a result of traffic from Twitter, “the Twitter Effect”. (Or perhaps “the Tweet effect” would be catchier…?)
But now on to the big question…

How could a single tweet generate that much traffic?

First of all, of course it was a big factor that Pete Cashmore is one of the people on Twitter with the most followers (people who have subscribed to his tweets). According to Twitterholic, he has more than 50,000 followers.
But the key here may not be just the number of followers of the initial tweeter, but the retweets. A retweet is when a Twitter user resends a message so that his/her own followers can share it. Pete Cashmore was the most retweeted Twitter user during the period when the affected blog went down (according to Retweetist).
The interesting thing about retweets is that they have the potential to increase the spread of a tweet exponentially, especially if some of the retweeters also have many followers.
It might be worth pointing out that the blog that crashed was on a shared hosting account (at Dreamhost). A blog on a dedicated server or a cluster would have handled the amount of traffic better, but what happened is still very relevant. There are a LOT of blogs on shared hosting accounts, and as Twitter keeps growing, who knows what kind of traffic generation it will be capable of?

The Twitter Effect formula

If we take a stab at formulating how a single tweet can garner so much traffic, it would be something like this (which essentially describes the reach of a tweet on Twitter):
The Twitter Effect formula = (Original tweet * followers) + (retweets * followers of retweeters) + (retweets of retweets * followers of those), and so on.
This way, tweets can spread out like the branches of a tree or a root system and reach a very large number of Twitter users. The spread is basically only limited by the size of Twitter’s user base. If the tweet contains a link to a site, this site is bound to get a significant amount of traffic as the tweet spreads.

Note that there may also be more than one original tweet pointing to the same target, and the general discussion around a post on other parts of the Web is also bound to create its share of activity on Twitter (and elsewhere too, of course).
Think of it as “the great echo chamber” and you get the gist of it. It’s similar to how much of the blogosphere works, which is a good analogy since Twitter is, after all, usually called a microblogging service.

What do you think?

As Twitter’s user base grows, will traffic from Twitter soon be a common reason for site outages? Please share your thoughts (and experiences?) in the comments.
Credits to Rich Miller at Data Center Knowledge for catching this in the first place.
Roots image from Wikimedia Commons.

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